California Employees Defamation Blog
What is Defamation and Why Does it Matter in the Employment Context?
Good character takes a lifetime to build. "It is probably the dearest possession that a man has, and once lost is almost impossible to regain. The possession of a good reputation is conducive to happiness in life and contentment. The loss of it, . . . brings shame, misery and heartache." McCoy v. Hearst, 42 Cal.3d 835, 858 fn.22 (1986). For these reasons, the law has a strong interest in redressing the harm done to a person's reputation and recognizes that a person has a right not to be defamed by false statements.
Defamation is a legal right provided by California statute. See California Civil Code §§ 44, 45a, and 46. Generally, it is a false statement of fact that harms a person's reputation and is read or heard by someone other than the person being talked about. When the statement is made orally, it's called slander; a written statement is called libel.
Although easy to say, it's not quite that easy to prove. In many employment situations, there is a requirement that the statement be made with malice, which may be tricky to establish and can often be the issue on which a defamation claim will turn.
In the employment context, defamation claims sometimes arise after the employment relationship ends and when a former employer is asked for a reference. Typically, the false statement is about the reasons why the employee was fired or the quality of the employee's performance. In such a case, if your former employer makes misrepresentations about you that prevent you from obtaining employment, your former employer could be liable under Labor Code section 1050, which also makes defamation in this context a criminal misdemeanor. But defamation claims most often arise in the course of employment when there is an attempt to justify an unfair action taken against the employee, such as termination, demotion, failure to pay bonus award, or sometimes just company politics.